Practically every brand wants to cultivate online influencers, but the process of doing so isn’t as easy as it seems on the surface. Brands that think aggregating influencers is as low effort as shipping a box of freebies to ten or so bloggers and waiting for the positive articles to roll in will be in for a bit of a shock. It’s a rude reality that had to be confronted by Pixorial, a software platform that launched in 2009 on which consumers can upload, edit, and share video memories.
Melissa Hourigan, the company’s consulting VP of communications (and its former VP of marketing), had been trying to engage with bloggers in various capacities for ten years. The idea of sending a cold-call form email to rally an online community sends her into shivers. “Oh, God no,” she says of the tactic. “Bloggers are almost more critical than [traditional] media on how they’re being approached and what’s being asked. They’ve gotten very sophisticated in their requirements on how to work with them. And they’re also running their own lives. They aren’t necessarily doing this as a full-time job.”
These requirements differ from blogger to blogger and can entail everything from corporate sponsorship to ad-buying requirements.
“You keep hearing ‘Engage influencers,’” Hourigan says, “And as marketers we understand that, but it’s so time-consuming and so easy to offend if you’re not reading all their posts and understanding what they care about.”
Yet, engaging with online influencers is important particularly for a consumer-tech company like Pixorial, which competes in a market flooded with lifehacking solutions and apps, trying to get the attention of a populace buffeted everywhere with marketing messages.
Moreover, without a gigantic marketing budget, which Pixorial admittedly doesn’t have, it’s difficult to generate awareness. Influencers, Hourigan says, simply gives Pixorial a better success rate. Specifically, they drive the traffic that Pixorial values: customers.
“When people listen to [influencers] that they trust and that come from similar situations, it just changes the engagement we have with consumers,” Hourigan explains. After NPR wrote a positive story on Pixorial, which engaged an audience anxious for the company’s service, Hourigan realized the power of influencers. Press from trade magazines, also, proved beneficial, but didn’t always elicit user sign-ups, though it could attract investors–a positive for privately-funded Pixorial
Ultimately though, it’s a tricky thing to find, cultivate, and build engaging relationships with influencers that drive customer sign-ups.
Holly Hamann, co-founder and CMO of BlogFrog, an influencer marketing platform and service that helps brands and agencies find and develop meaningful blogger relationships, describes the difference between advocates and influencers.
An advocate, Hamann says, has above-average passion and loyalty for a product, but not necessarily a community who they can mobilize to drive purchases. “My 16-year-old loves his iTouch,” Hamann says. “He’s an advocate, but he doesn’t have influence.” While the sweet spot for marketers is finding the advocate who is also an influencer, that middle island of the Venn Diagram is pretty small. Often, marketers make the well-intentioned mistake of going after advocates.
“It’s in our nature as marketers to find people who love our products,” Hamann says. “But the thing is, they need a network. If they’re not content creators, who are they really influencing when they go out there and make a lot of noise?”
Brands often look at the easy metrics like Klout or Alexa scores before choosing brand advocates. But when BlogFrog helped Pixorial with the latter’s February 2011 influencer-driven campaign “Memories in Motion,” it was a small, comparatively less-read blog called Seven Clown Circus—about a family of seven—that drove the most traffic. This happened, Hamann says, because the blog’s audience was so loyal and engaged.
When BlogFrog, which first began working with Pixorial in 2010, helped launch “Memories in Motion,” the technology vendor provided a database of influencers divided by demographics. “We identified bloggers from [BlogFrog’s] network that were influential,” Hourigan recalls. Pixorial specifically targeted women in the “mommy blogger” community and searched for individuals with sway in topics that went beyond video: memory-keeping, parenting, frugal living. “The requirement was we wanted moms to be our champions—households with children under the age of 18,” Hourigan says.
Additionally, Pixorial needed to find bloggers with a specific focus as opposed to ones with more general interests.
“Find someone who really cares about a subject,” Hamann says. “If I were a dish washer detergent company, go after someone who blogs about washing dishes rather than someone who talks about consumer lifestyle trends.”
Ultimately, when it comes to building an influencer community, brands need to reach beyond the confines of their nominal subject areas—as Pixorial did.
When food company Horizon Organic sought to build its influencers, it initially wanted to generate discussions around the importance of choosing organic food products. “If they initiate that conversation online,” Hamann says, “they’re already late to the gate. People who care about organic are having a different conversation before they have that one.”
Those catalyst conversations revolve around keeping children healthy in a world of junk food, choosing trustworthy brands, and discussions on the relationship between health and food.
“They’re also talking about finance, because organic is more expensive,” Hamann says. “Everyone likes to say they buy organic, but when you’re at the store with your paycheck, that’s when your real values come out.”
For Pixorial’s “Memories in Motion” campaign, the discussion transcended video and touched on topics around scrapbooking, favorite holidays, family traditions, and favorite photo apps.
Besides enabling the creation of more resonant messaging, this tactic gave Pixorial greater insight into its consumer base. “We really wanted to understand how these moms are making decisions, what’s most important to them so we could tailor our product around these busy moms,” Hourigan says.
Ultimately, Pixorial’s work with BlogFrog generated 5,950 community posts, 30 blog posts—which resulted in 835,200 unique visitors, and 1.4 million social media impressions.
The key to creating and maintaining relationships with influencers—relationships that will pay dividends even years after initial contact—is authenticity.
“When we started working with these bloggers, we had these weekly conversations about things we’d talk about this week, things they could throw in, things readers care about,” Hourigan says. “These are real people and we still talk to them. It’s been almost two years and we still have relationships. They’ll go onto a talk show and talk about Pixorial. They feel they have a trusted relation with us, it’s not, ‘Hey we’ll buy an ad.’”
As part of the “Memories in Motion” campaign, Pixorial sent shipment kits to influencers so they could send in old video tapes and film to be uploaded onto a server. One blogger, Hourigan recalls, saw a video of her father, who had died when she was a child. “We still see traffic from that post, even though she wrote it one and a half years ago,” Hourigan says.
Ultimately, authenticity is the most important factor in maintaining that influencer-brand relationship. “We’re in a place where everyone is being marketed to,” Hourigan says. “There are so many places to target a consumer, but if you’re having an exchange or a dialog, it just changes things and people are willing to take a chance on something that’s so personal and special like video memories.”